A new report finds homelessness rose sharply in the Garden State last year.

According to just-released data compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are 9,303 men, women and children who are homeless in New Jersey this year, which is a 9 percent increase from 2017.

Previous HUD homeless counts had indicated Jersey’s homeless population had recently been trending downward.

Experts believe more and more New Jerseyans are becoming homeless, and they insist the actual number of state residents who don’t have a place to call home is considerably higher than what is being reported.

“There are a lot of flaws in the way the count is done,” said Kate Leahy, the director of operations and communications for the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness.

She explained the count is merely a snapshot of how many people are observed to be homeless during one day and one night of the year, and most of them are in shelters, so the total is not accurate.

“People are staying with other people on couches, they might go to a shelter for one night and then stay with someone else for another night. They’re not necessarily as visible on the street," she said.

According to the HUD point-in-time count, Essex County has the highest number of homeless in New Jersey with 2,229, followed by Hudson and Burlington counties.

Middlesex county ranks 4th highest in the state with 596 homeless residents, Monmouth county is 12th highest with a total of 335 homeless individuals and Ocean is 13th with 311 homeless.

Salem has the lowest homeless population in the state with 47.

“It’s harder and harder to make ends meet in New Jersey; housing gets less and less affordable; the opioid epidemic is growing," Leahy said. “While the unemployment rate is going down, the amount of money people are making is not enough to afford the very expensive housing in most of our state.”

She said in many parts of the state we may not be aware of homelessness as an issue because we don’t see people lying on the sidewalk or sleeping in cardboard boxes like on the streets of New York or Philadelphia.

She said those being paid minimum wage have to work three full-time jobs to be able to afford a home — “and that’s just not doable in many cases.”

Leahy added you might not imagine anyone is homeless in your community but “in every community in New Jersey there are individuals and families experiencing homelessness, so there’s a good chance there are people right in your area.”

Connie Mercer, the founder and executive director of HomeFront, an organization that takes care of Mercer County’s homeless families, says on any given night they’re providing shelter to about 450 people — and it’s been that way for years.

She said while the official HUD count includes people in shelters, it may miss individuals sleeping on benches in the back of train stations, for example.

“They’re the folks that are sleeping in their cars, they are the people that are in tents, even in tent cities," she said.

Mercer said the official total of 9,300 homeless residents is way too low.

“Some people in the field say you have to multiply that by four to come up with anything realistic.”

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